Strong feelings were expressed, and questions asked, at Remembrance this year. I was at St Paul’s Bledlow Ridge, a lovingly looked after village church which is (wonderfully) kept open in the day. There’s a John Piper West window which some see as a vision of heaven. Some people present knew well the village names on the war memorial, and it was good to have a crowd there to keep faith with the dead of the last century’s wars, and show their gratitude for the basics we all easily take for granted, as well as express our pride in the dedication and professionalism of our armed services today.
This year, however, with news reports of a British soldier killed yesterday in Afghanistan, and seven others in the past week, people were asking questions. Remembrance felt very much more immediate than has often been the case in previous years. The people of Wooton Basset have evolved a mark of remembrance and respect, almost weekly of late, to dead service personnel as their bodies are repatriated. Millions of ordinary people are united in their respect and admiration for those who serve in our forces, putting their lives at risk daily for the rest of us.
Everyone this morning very much expressed this admiration, and wanted to show solidarity with our troops and their families in the UK. However, people are seriously uncertain as to the aims of the current exercise. It’s not that they doubt the war is winnable, because nobody seems to know what “winning” would amount to. Many who are entirely supportive of our service personnel feel they owe it to those who are risking their lives daily for us to ask our politicians hard questions the troops can’t.
On a micro- scale our forces are doing what they are being asked to do, whatever the cost. However, the bigger macro aim is unclear, and nobody is hearing a clear or convincing answer to the question of what our macro-aims might be from the politicians who put our troops in danger in the first place. Simply asserting it’s all somehow vaguely necessary, without explaining what and why, is not enough. Those making big sacrifices, along with the rest of us, deserve better. Perhaps greater clarity is unachievable for as long as the Americans don’t know what they’re trying to achieve there either.
It was interesting to be asked, as someone who has studied Victorian history, about our previous three wars in Afghanistan, and what might be learnt from them.
1839-42 (First Afghan War)
This proved that there is no such country as Afghanistan, just a ragbag of local loyalties and warlords. Therefore any attempt to turn it into a conventional buffer state between the Indian empire and Russia did nothing but stimulate Russian interest in the region, and inaugurate a new phase of what came to be known as the “Great Game.” The war proved there’s no such “nation” as Afghanistan except in the vaguest notional terms, and it was an easier place to get into than out of.
1878-1880 (Second Afghan War)
This was the war in which literary fans may recall Sherlock Holmes’ chum Dr Watson served. It demonstrated clearly the utter hostility of the terrain, the limited usefulness of modern arms technology, and the utter impossilibility of imposing coherent government on it, along with the lack of any real British interest in the place.
The British concluded that as long as it was that hostile to Western culture and mores it would be equally hostile to the Russians. The way the treaty of Gandamak broke down, showing itself unnecessary as well as unenforceable, showed the perils of backing any one local leader too closely. Eventually, the British withdrew their resident from Kabul. There was nothing to be gained by interference in the complex internal dynamics of the place, for Britain or Russia.
1919 (Third Afghan War)
This was the shortest Afghan war yet, and yielded only one major additional conclusion of value. What was learnt was that in any operations in Afghanistan ground communications were unnecessarily hazardous. The RAF should therefore be the lead service in any future operations that might need to be carried out in the mountains.
You might think that a flood of ground troops (what some call a surge) could somehow sort everything and transform the place into something other than it has consistently proved to be, in military terms, over the past 170 years. I’m not sure the Russians would agree with you there, after their experiences on the ground in the late eighties. Of course in the eighties the West was arming and resourcing the local mujahideen, but it’s hard to think that was the only reason the Russian occupation failed.
So, it’s time for the politicians who started this war to tell us, and especially the troops whose lives they are risking daily, where and how they think it should end. Osama and chums legged it to Pakistan years ago now, and most money and resource for terrorism comes from Pakistan and Saudi. So what are doing in Afghanistan, and how are going to know when we’ve done it? We’re all ears, and very much hoping the current ceremonies at Wooton Basset will not become a permanent fixture of our national life...